the phone book's computer section laying on the front seat. There were also maps with business locations marked and evidence that the brothers were planning to expand their illicit business venture into Stockton and Tracy, two nearby cities. By 9 a.m. that morning, the Modesto Police Dept. served a search warrant at the suspect's home.

"When we got to this three-bedroom house, every room had computers in it. In the master bedroom, the walk-in closets were floor-to-ceiling [with] computers. There was a shed with about 40 computers in it. And then we opened the garage; it was just packed wall-to-wall," Carter described, still with a sense of awe. "They had hung a blue sheet over the front so that the stuff wasn't visible if the door was open, and behind that they had PCs, laptops, CD-ROM drives, hard drives, modems, ZIP drives, monitors -- you name it and they had it. They even had boxes and boxes of three-and-a-half inch disks." One month later, the other brother was apprehended.

Finding the Owners

It took a lot of long hours to trace the computer equipment back to the owners -- some of it by traditional methods, with the victims examining equipment and providing identification numbers to prove ownership. But in most cases, police officers spent hours in front of computer screens trying to find the owners' names.

To do that job, Carter used XTree Gold 3.0 (see Editor's Note), a comprehensive file manager for Windows put out by Symantec Corp. With XTree Gold, the police were able to search directory trees, file lists and ZIP archives, finding old company letters and other identifiers to help in reuniting the computers with their owners.

"We were lucky that the perps weren't that smart. They had loaded new programs over the old but apparently didn't know they could have reformatted the computer and erased all the original owner information we were able to find," said Carter. "I used XTree Gold to search out and examine every file and folder I could find to figure out who the equipment belonged to. I sat in front of one computer for four-and-a-half hours before I found the name and address of an owner who came in and claimed the computer. We had to do this with 50 or 60 computers, and we had a lot of hard drives that had been taken out of their systems, so we had to set up a computer that we could plug these hard drives into one-by-one until we figured out who they belonged to as well."

Over their four-month spree, the thieves stole over $750,000 worth of computers and peripherals. The police department eventually recovered $300,000 to $400,000 worth of the stolen property, and 80 percent of that was returned to the victims. The two brothers are paying their price from behind prison walls. One of them, a previously convicted felon and career criminal, got seven years in state prison, while the other, with no previous criminal record, was given four years.

Carter closed the case with a lesson ringing in his ears. "More than anything, it taught me how much law enforcement can do by learning to use technology. Had we not had some computer knowledge, we couldn't have accomplished what we did. A few years ago, a lot of that unclaimed equipment would have never made it back to the owners and, even now, law enforcement is way behind the technology curve compared to the rest of society," he said. "Every department has a few people with computer knowledge, but there is a real need for specialized training if we are going to serve the public fully in a technological world."

Editor's Note: XTree Gold for Windows was discontinued by Symantec Corp. in November 1997. Its replacement is Symantec's Norton Utilities 3.0.

Ray Dussault is a Sacramento, Calif.-based writer.

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